President Obama is in a tight spot. The 2010 elections have sharply contracted his ability to achieve legislative victories, while his room to maneuver on other issues will be limited by the intrusive investigations which are almost certainly coming his way. Progress will be harder to attain than ever. But, especially in light of the upheavals which are now spreading across northern Africa, there is one major policy change he could adopt right now, which would make a great deal of difference.
Engagement with various aspects of the Muslim world, from the Middle East to South Asia, to Muslims in Europe and the United States, has been one of the signatures of Obama’s foreign policy. Now, two years after he announced this policy of outreach, it is time for him to assess this experiment and conclude that it has failed. The failure is not due to a lack of effort, passion, or commitment on his part, nor to problems of implementation. It lies instead in the initial assumptions on which the approach was based, namely the idea that it was the policies and personality of his predecessor that were the driving force behind Islamist hatred of our country.
To Obama’s great credit, he has been fighting the Islamists far harder than his early supporters in the left wing of his party ever expected he would. Whatever illusions they may still have about Third-World virtue, he has left them far behind. His undeclared war on our enemies has included escalation of the Predator drone strikes in Pakistan, and he has appointed his predecessor’s favorite general, David Petraeus, to run and win the war in Afghanistan. Disappointing many liberal intellectuals, he extended the timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan from 2011 to 2014, in order to achieve some definition of victory. And judging by newspaper headlines about plots thwarted, he has pushed cooperation among intelligence services engaged in counterterrorism as aggressively as ever. However reluctant a warrior he may be, however much he did not run for president in order to fight this war, he is using the force of arms far more than most voters in 2008 anticipated.
In his inaugural address in 2009, he surprised me—I was 20 in 1967—by favorably mentioning the Battle of Khe Sanh, during the Vietnam war, among the moments of glory in American military history. I suspected then that he was more the commander-in-chief than he had let on. Since those euphoric early days, his actions indicate that he understands the seriousness of the threats that the Islamists pose to the United States and our allies. We do not need Julian Assange to reveal the extent of continuity between his policies and those of his predecessor. For both Obama and President Bush, actions did not fully coincide with words. In Bush’s case, it was partly because he could not find the words or because he thought the cause was so obviously just that more words were not needed. In Obama’s case, the gap between harsh actions and the uncertain trumpet of his public speech appears to have more to do with his initial conviction that words as harsh as his actions would be counterproductive in engaging the Muslim world. So he spoke softly and carried a big stick. Like his immediate predecessor, Obama has refused to use “Islamist” or “Islamism” to name the ideological tradition of the enemies that have declared war on the United States, our European allies, Israel, and many Arab states.
And the Islamists’ response has been as follows. Iran has made a mockery of “negotiations,” which it is clearly using to play for time as it continues to seek the bomb. It has also sent tens of millions of dollars and tons of weapons, including longer-range missiles, to Hezbollah and Hamas, placing larger areas of Israel in jeopardy. In Iraq, Iran has managed to exert influence over the Maliki coalition government. Islamists in Pakistan keep the Taliban afloat and threaten the political stability of Pakistan itself. Al Qaeda’s efforts to attack the West continue unabated, as indicated by the recent terrorism alerts in Germany and in this country—as well as the arrests in Sweden, Denmark, and Britain. Islamists continue to slaughter their fellow Muslims in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and have now added Iraqi and Egyptian Christians to the list of those they are eager to murder.
In truth, since the attacks of September 11, the U.S. government has refused to call a spade a spade and has not waged a full-scale war of ideas against the Islamists and against radical Islamist ideology. What Obama’s predecessor called a “war on terror” and what he calls a fight against “the forces of organized extremism” is in reality a war against terrorists and terrorist regimes inspired by varieties of an ideological tradition called radical Islamism. It really is the third great totalitarian tradition in world politics after Nazism (or fascism) and Communism. Like its two famous predecessors, it too emerged in the middle of the twentieth century. It drew bits and pieces from both—more from the Nazis than from the Communists—but it is the one that has persisted while the other two have largely lost their inspirational power. It is an autonomous ideological tradition with its own internal compass, and passions that are not primarily a reflexive response to what the president of the United States does or does not do. This is why Obama’s gestures of goodwill and empathy are met with the Islamists’ contempt and hatred.
In every single act of terror in recent years, the perpetrators were clearly motivated by a set of ideas rooted in a radical interpretation of the Koran, yet Western governments, including our own, have tied themselves in knots attempting to avoid speaking the obvious truth: Radical Islamists—not all believers in Islam, not all Muslims—are our enemy. We cannot defeat them unless we say this clearly, and publicly hold their ideas up to the same level of public criticism and denunciation that we directed at the ideologies of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism.
Obama has undoubtedly heard many voices in Washington, and probably some in his own administration, telling him that the task of fighting the ideological battle with Islamism must remain one that is strictly an intra-Muslim intellectual and political task, and that American vehemence will only make it easier for radical Islamists to associate advocates of democracy and individual freedom with “the Crusader-Zionist alliance,” to use Al Qaeda’s medieval phrase. Certainly, those brave souls who dare to denounce Islamism from within Muslim countries, or as a part of Muslim communities in Europe and this country, deserve praise and support. Yet it is an odd argument to suggest that our silence about the Islamist origins of terror helps these brave and often endangered critics. Similar arguments were regularly made during the Cold War against those who made the intellectual case against Communism. We know that the implosion of Communism in 1989 was powerfully aided by the willingness of successive American presidents, liberals and conservatives—in the last years, Carter and Reagan—to speak blunt and powerful truths about Communist ideology and policy and the violations of human rights in its dictatorships. Critics called both Carter’s human rights campaign and Reagan’s hard line about Soviet armaments dangerous and destabilizing. According to press reports, this was Obama’s view of Reagan in his senior thesis at Columbia. I thought then and still think today that Reagan was more right than his critics. For the dissidents in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, his angry words, but also his peaceful intent, were huge blasts of fresh air that placed their own dictators on the ideological defensive. A similar combination coming from Obama against our current enemy might have similar results.
There is probably nothing Obama can say to the ideological hard core of Islamists that will change their minds or hearts. But he has the talent and grasp of nuance both to speak clearly about the evils of this horrendous ideology and to distinguish it from the Islam that for the majority of believers has nothing to do with terrorism. If he and his administration express their disgust with religiously inspired terror no matter who the victims are—Jews, Muslims, Christians, women, gays, non-believers, journalists, our own soldiers—this too could place the Islamists in a position they have almost no experience in handling, namely, that of being on the ideological defensive. Many evil people succeed in avoiding the moral opprobrium they deserve, but the Islamist terrorists have been particularly fortunate in that regard. With a series of well-crafted and powerful speeches, he could bring their undeserved good fortune in that regard to an end.
Recent events in Pakistan have underscored, with refreshing clarity, the need for such an approach. In the wake of the murder of Salman Taseer, a leading voice for liberal values in Pakistan, his supporters used the term “extreme right” to refer to the Islamists clerics who celebrated his murder. The term is perfectly appropriate. I don’t recall Obama, his predecessor, or our European allies using this term—“extreme right”—to refer to the Islamists. The Israelis frequently do. In my view they are correct in doing so.
Islamism is a profoundly reactionary phenomenon. The litany of its commonalities with the modern reactionary tradition is embarrassingly familiar: anti-Semitism; the rejection of individual freedom and autonomy, liberal democracy, equality for women, and the separation of church, mosque, and state. Nor should the Islamists’ hatred and repression of homosexuals, including use of the death penalty, go unmentioned. Islamism is the most important political movement in our time to justify its actions with reference to paranoid conspiracy theories and the celebration of death and martyrdom. Because Islamists define voters in all democracies as sharing guilt with the governments they vote for, they make democratic citizenship a crime and thus justify terrorism against innocents. If any political party or movement with such ideas emerged in Europe or the United States, it would be the subject of regular moral and political denunciation as a variant of Fascism and Nazism.
I am only stating the obvious. Clearly, Obama knows that the previous sentences are true. It would behoove him to let the rest of the world know he agrees. Most voters don’t have a detailed knowledge of the spectrum of Islamist politics, but they can sense when politicians avoid expressing what common sense tells them is true. If Obama and other political leaders of the center do not use plain language, the field for doing so opens up to demagogues who have no interest in or ability to make distinctions between Islam and Islamism. Articulating distinctions and grasping nuance is one of our president’s strengths and one of the reasons people admire him. I urge him to put those talents to use.
The dramatic events in Tunisia and Egypt underscore the importance of stiffening our public criticism toward Islamism. Though non-Islamist currents have come to the fore in these uprisings, Islamism’s organizational reach, and its affinity with the region’s dominant religion, is too extensive to assume that it will be discarded in the euphoric days of greater democracy. Hence, it should be our policy to combine support for democratization with firm and public criticism of the anti-democratic intentions of the Islamists.
American policy in postwar European history may offer a guide to how we should act in North Africa. After the defeat of Nazism and Fascism, the United States made strenuous efforts to support political currents that both upheld liberal democratic principles and also opposed the Communists. In so doing, it placed anti-Communism on liberal, not racist or dictatorial, foundations; it created for these countries a “vital center.” This is our challenge in Egypt as well: There, for thirty years, opposition to Islamism has been associated with authoritarian rule—and it is a task of the Obama administration to foster a democratic form of opposition to Islamism. In Europe, opposition to Communism was discredited for many who associated it with the rhetoric of the Fascists. In Egypt and the Arab world, a similarly vehement criticism may be no less discredited by its association with the Mubarak regime. Only the growth of a vital center in Arab politics can banish this association.
Writing as a current professor about a former professor, I think Obama knows when an initial hypothesis has been refuted by the facts and events. The assumptions that justified the policy of engagement need to be reconsidered, and the policy needs to be reset, just as the policy of realist accommodation with authoritarian governments is being reset by events in Egypt. The president has shown himself willing to use weapons of remarkable accuracy and deadliness against the terrorists. He has sent tens of thousands of our soldiers into harm’s way to fight the Islamists in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and he has touched their hearts by visiting them and flying to Kabul during the holidays. These are not the acts of a president who does not care about victory. But there is one powerful weapon that he has refused to use against the Islamists, namely the weapon of his own eloquence, and public assertions of what is at stake in the war they have forced upon us.
When this policy change is adopted, I expect that there will be a surprising number of citizens—liberals, independents, and conservatives alike—in this country and elsewhere, as well as the vast majority of Muslims around the world, who will breathe a sigh of relief that the most powerful government in the world is finally speaking the truth about the people who are threatening us and civilized people everywhere and is going on the ideological offensive against them. This message would be most compelling if it came from Obama, since no Western leader has demonstrated his or her goodwill toward believers of Islam as much as he has; hence none is in as strong a position to isolate and defeat the Islamist fanatics who speak in its name. It is time for Obama to match the force of arms that he has deployed with the force of his own words and the public rhetoric of our government.
Jeffrey Herf is the author most recently of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009). He teaches modern European history at the University of Maryland in College Park.